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Stowell’s tenure held challenges

Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Nancy Stowell, right, participates in the filming of “School Talk,” a public-affairs program, at KSPS on Thursday. (Jesse Tinsley)
Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Nancy Stowell, right, participates in the filming of “School Talk,” a public-affairs program, at KSPS on Thursday. (Jesse Tinsley)

During her final six months as Spokane Public Schools superintendent, Nancy Stowell plans to write a retirement wish list on a big piece of paper that will hang on the back of her office door.

On Thursday, she rattled off a few items she already has in mind: “I want to spend time with my husband. I want to learn how to speak fluent French. I want to learn to play the piano. I want to cook.”

In a surprise announcement Wednesday, Stowell, the district’s first female superintendent, announced she’s decided after 40 years as an educator that it’s time to retire. Her final day is June 30.

“I’m 63,” Stowell said. “I’ve worked since I was in high school. I’ve loved all my jobs, but I am 63.”

Stowell started her teaching career in 1970 working in Shoreline and Puyallup schools in Western Washington and teaching a variety of high school classes, including history, civics, psychology and world geography.

Her first teaching job in Spokane was a one-year stint at St. Paschal’s School. She started her career with Spokane Public Schools in 1974 as a teacher at Libby Middle School and worked her way up to become leader of the state’s second-largest district in 2008.

“She earned her way into each succeeding step, paving the way for many behind her,” said Bob Douthitt, Spokane school board president.

Men dominated leadership positions when Stowell entered the field. Stowell has been a “quiet feminist pioneer,” Douthitt said.

Colleagues were surprised to hear Stowell’s announcement.

Mark Anderson, associate superintendent, said he knew retirement was something she was considering in the next couple years, but not so soon.

Anderson, who is second in command, has spent many hours working with Stowell as the district has had to slash millions from its budget.

“I will miss the camaraderie and problem-solving,” he said.

The district will miss her leadership, he added. “She’s just so knowledgeable and has such a great way of working with school leaders, principals and all the instructional staff. She’s truly your education superintendent,” he said. “She’s sat in all the chairs. And all the way, she’s been such a class act.”

Stowell’s time at the helm also brought some communitywide criticism over a dropout rate that neared 40 percent and administrative pay increases of 3 percent-plus in the midst of a slumping economy.

Stowell collaborated with staff, faculty and community leaders to create programs to address the dropout rate.

A Gonzaga University study funded in part by the Inland Northwest Community Foundation identified ways to catch potential dropouts at the middle-school level. Thus, intervention programs were put in place to catch kids who are failing reading and math, requiring them to spend extra time with a teacher and/or online help.

Additionally, multiple credit retrieval and mentor programs were implemented at the high schools. As a result, on-time graduation has increased by nearly 20 percent, according to preliminary figures from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The pay raises prompted a board room filled with angry educators and a vocal union president.

“While the Spokane Education Association and the district have had their issues in the past, such as the administrator raises last year, Nancy has always been respectful and willing to listen,” said Spokane Education Association President Jenny Rose. 

Stowell and all school administrators have since taken pay reductions of 3 percent or more. At the same time, the state cut teachers’ pay by 1.9 percent. Stowell’s final salary is $216,615.

Said Rose, “I can honestly say that she will be missed, but I know that the most exciting time of her life is just beginning, and we wish her the best.”